Six Challenges for the Biden Administration’s China Policy

Can Washington work with its allies and partners to shape Beijing’s behavior and find realistic ways to cooperate on shared interests?

Last week, President Biden held a call with General Secretary Xi Jinping, China’s paramount leader. They reportedly talked for more than two hours, a length that, combined with the call readouts, suggests a weighty and potentially heated conversation. Ties between Washington and Beijing have become strained in recent years as the world’s two biggest powers locked horns over geopolitics, technology, economics, and values. Bilateral relations have entered a new and more difficult phase—even as the global environment is characterized by many pressing issues that would benefit from cooperative efforts to address them. In this context, U.S. policymakers will face six major challenges in dealing with China.

  1. Upholding peace in the Indo-Pacific region in the face of Chinese coercion.

The most immediate task is to maintain peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region in the face of China’s demonstrated willingness to engage in political, economic, and military coercion to advance its interests. The world has watched Chinese military and paramilitary forces operate in an aggressive manner around Taiwan, on the border with India, and in the East and South China Seas. Those actions raise the chances for miscalculations or accidents, and even outright aggression in the region. Washington and its allies and partners will have to develop integrated strategies to deter Chinese aggression and incentivize Beijing to choose de-escalation during tense moments. Those plans should take into account China’s penchant for seizing an advantageous territorial or operational position and then, having made gains, pursuing de-escalation that establishes a new status quo that allows Beijing to hold onto those gains. Examples of such behavior can be found in the South and East China Seas and on the land borders with India and Bhutan.

  1. Building and sustaining coalitions of allies and partners.

U.S. policy goals toward China are not just about China itself. They are about building and strengthening a free and open international order in the Indo-Pacific and, indeed, across the globe. Washington’s biggest advantage in that overall campaign is its unrivaled network of allies and partners. Managing the relationships in that globe-spanning network can be difficult though. Even mostly like-minded countries often see both the problems and the solutions differently. U.S. policymakers will have to be nimble and creative in building coalitions to address a range of issues related to China through multilateral action. For some topics, longstanding alliances like those with Japan, South Korea, or with NATO will be the appropriate group. For others, newer forums like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or “Quad”) that brings together India, Japan, and Australia are better-suited. And for others, Washington will have to lead the creation of issue-specific coalitions to address particular problems. All of these groupings will require painstaking, carefully orchestrated diplomacy that would test even the world’s most skillful statespeople. Moreover, keeping allies and partners on board is just as important for engaging China as it is for efforts to counter the country.

  1. Crafting and implementing a whole-of-government China policy.

China poses a number of difficult, interconnected policy problems for the United States. One of the major challenges for Washington will be coordinating not only across regional and functional issues where China is a major factor, but also between foreign and domestic policy. Hiring Kurt Campbell, an experienced and empowered official, as coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council is a good first step. But fully accounting for the China factor across government, including the departments and agencies not explicitly focused on foreign affairs, while still keeping the threat in proper perspective, will be a high-wire act. For example, the leaders of the Departments of Commerce, Energy, Homeland Security, Justice, and Education, among others, will all spend more time on China-related issues than was the case in earlier eras. It will require officials across nearly every area to have a baseline understanding of how China affects their portfolio and how to shape policy in response. Getting policy toward Beijing right will also require a clear-eyed assessment of the difficult realities of strategic competition among major powers. But it must also avoid a one-dimensional view of China as implacable adversary that must be opposed at all costs or a perception that punishing Beijing should itself be the objective of U.S. policy, as opposed to just a tool.

  1. Balancing foreign affairs with domestic renewal.

The flip side of the same coin is that U.S. policymakers will have to balance efforts to address China—and a volatile global security environment generally—with dealing with domestic challenges. President Biden has identified four active crises facing America: racial injustice, climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the related economic downturn. China factors into the latter three in ways that range from marginal to important, but for the most part, the core governmental responses will be domestic in nature. Dealing with problems at home necessarily consumes policymaking bandwidth, so there is a tradeoff between tackling foreign and domestic challenges. At the same time, to the extent that Washington’s relations with Beijing are shaped by each side’s perception of the other’s power trajectory—who’s rising and who’s declining—making progress to address domestic challenges can create useful foreign policy leverage in addition to the direct benefit of improving Americans’ lives.

At a recent USIP event, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan explained that China is “pointing to dysfunction and division in the United States and saying … [the U.S.] system doesn’t work.” He added that America needs to “refurbish the … foundations of our democracy” at home. Domestic strength is the wellspring of international power and influence, not just in material terms but also in the allure of democracy as a system of government for people around the world weighing different models.

  1. Finding realistic ways to cooperate with China on shared interests.

Many global issues would benefit from cooperative efforts that include China. The list of potential areas where Washington and Beijing could theoretically work together is familiar: countering climate change, improving global health security, stemming the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and coordinating on economic development in poor countries, to name just a few. The real obstacles come, however, when trying to convert in-principle areas of shared interest into tangible action. Barriers to working together often arise in that process of going from theory to practice. For example, on global health issues, China has been slow to turn over essential data to the World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Other bilateral disagreements can undermine cooperation as well, ranging from a general lack of trust in the relationship to specific concerns in areas such as Hong Kong or Xinjiang. Finding ways to bridge the gaps and cooperate without making undue concessions on other priorities will be difficult given the high level of mistrust between the two capitals.

  1. Searching for a new modus vivendi for U.S.-China relations.

Last but perhaps most importantly, Washington and Beijing will need to begin working toward a new modus vivendi or long-term political framework for a stable relationship. Such a framework should include sustainable methods of managing areas where the two powers disagree and there is little prospect for accord, such as Taiwan. It should also facilitate developing an agenda for coordination or cooperation that both sides can uphold despite tensions in other areas. The temptation in pursuing a new modus vivendi will be to give it a snappy name or tagline like “new type of great power relations” or “responsible stakeholder” and then try to fill in the specifics later. Instead, what is needed is a deep and multifaceted understanding about the benefits of long-term stability and what each side is willing to do to preserve it. Right now, both sides see the other as revisionist powers. Only by moving toward a new baseline understanding of what aspects of the relationship specifically, and the regional order in the Indo-Pacific more generally, should or should not be revised can Washington and Beijing come to a new equilibrium.

Taken together, these six challenges represent a daunting agenda for the U.S. government in the coming years as it grapples with the China challenge. The stakes for meeting them are enormous and no less than ensuring the future of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

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